Busy, Stressed and Sleep Deprived: Why So Self-Destructive?

08/08/2016 09:25 am ET

Jolt cola and powdered donuts were all we needed to get by during my undergrad years. Back then, those of us who went to school full-time while also holding down jobs (sometimes, more than one) loved to practice one-upmanship. “You think you’re tired? I was up until 2 a.m. studying for an exam after having to work late. I got – maybe – four hours of sleep.”

When we entered the workforce as graduates trying to climb our way up the corporate ladders, starting at minimum wage and the bottom rung – the landscape changed, but not the sentiment. We were proud workaholics who didn’t mind bragging about working a 60-hour week on a 40-hour-a-week salary. We were “team players” who were going to make something of our lives, even if we were overtaxed, overstressed, undervalued, underpaid and tired all the time. 

Then, somewhere along the way, we got married and started families. The priorities began to change; but all we did was replace those work hours with other obligations. Instead of one-upmanship, we began making excuses. “I’m sorry I couldn’t do X, Y and Z. I’ve been so busy!” We can’t help it … we are busy – all of us, all the time.

It all amounted to the same thing: we learned early on the culture of being busy, stressed and sleep deprived. But we would grin and bear it, lest we fall behind and be considered lazy.

When did this become okay? The Industrial Revolution? (That last one is rhetorical. I know it was.)

According to recent studies, Americans work more hours, take fewer vacations, and retire far later than any other country in the industrialized world. Additionally, we are more likely to put in “digital overtime,” checking our email on the weekends, when we’re sick and even on vacations. 

Several years ago, I decided to make a few changes in the way I approach my career and my personal life. I admit that I still falter from time to time; but like many ambitions, it requires practice. I’m sharing in case you find these helpful in your life: 

  • Eliminate the word “busy” from your vocabulary (and maybe also “crazy” and “slammed”). It gives the impression that we are too busy for friends, too busy for colleagues and are always interrupting others in the middle of their oh-so-busy lives when we ask for time. I may tell you that I’m unavailable, that my plate is full, that my schedule is robust (and I’ll let you know when my time frees up a bit); but never too busy, too slammed or that I have too crazy a schedule. It’s not a sentiment that should be celebrated.
  • Go off the grid on your days off. Unless I know in advance of a special event or project that requires my attention on my day off, my email notifications are turned off, and I will respond to work calls during the work week. Down time is needed to de-stress. Fortunately, I have a husband who holds me accountable if he sees me checking work email during my “off the grid” day(s). If you need to, turn your computer over to someone else and give them permission to tell you to stop checking email every ten minutes.
  • Set boundaries. I don’t blame clients and employers for asking whether you are available to assist them – even at odd hours of the day or night. It can’t hurt to ask, right? However, if you become a “yes” (wo)man every time a request comes in, it will start to leave you overworked, stressed and resentful. Don’t do it! Set realistic expectations.
  • Make sleep non-negotiable. When we’re chronically tired, we are less productive, more prone to injuries and more likely to develop long-term physical and emotional imbalances. We need sleep to clean out the clutter of our minds, improve our immune health and hit the “recharge” button on our bodies.
  • Say “no” more often. As a people pleaser, this took some practice on my part. Personally, I have a handful of specific goals that are important to me (i.e. my career, my friends and family, writing a book, exercising regularly, etc.). Until my time becomes more available, anything that is not on my high-priority “yes” list, becomes a “no.”
  • Find your Zen. Practicing meditation or mindfulness exercises on a regular basis will help you de-stress, enhance cognitive health, improve your overall wellbeing and energize you, making you more productive than if you skipped those 20 minutes of meditation in favor of working. It’s the “reset” button for your soul.
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